Christians and Wealth Disparity

September 17th, 2013

Welcome to the 1920s. At least that’s what recent statistical data tell us. According to widely cited sources, income inequality has hit a new record. Not since 1928, the year before the infamous stock market crash, has there been this kind of disparity in America. The dynamic is unsustainable, and the church should be deeply concerned.

We’ve made great strides throughout the world on behalf of justice. We’re not there yet, but many things have improved. However, for some reason, conversation about wealth and poverty gets less attention. We squirm when someone tries to address this reality. Worse yet, we often demonize those who raise the issue – which is an extension of demonizing those who go without. Almost twenty-five years after the implosion of state-sponsored socialism, we are quick to call anyone who questions the obscene chasm in resources a “socialist.” Come on. I have never been a socialist. I am not a socialist. I do not advocate socialism. But I do believe strongly in the inestimable value of every human being, and something needs to change.

The Mirror and Money

Many will hear my words and immediately force the conversation into a paradigm of liberal versus conservative. I’m not buying it. This lens may allow us to place blame elsewhere, but it is not a true reflection of reality. We need to look in the mirror, all of us. Conservatives claim to cherish traditional values, which in theory includes the worth of all people. Liberals claim to care for others. Both conservatives and liberals have embraced a comfortable collusion that rationalizes the privileging of a few at the expense of others. This is an issue of metaphysics – the understanding of reality – what we can and cannot know. Here is the dirty little secret that is seldom acknowledged: Intellectual relativism and moral relativism are the best friends predatory economic practices have ever had. If everything is subjective then reality itself is created by the eye of the beholder. This kind of ideology makes it a lot easier to ignore and even use those around us for personal gain. After all, if my perception determines what counts and even who counts, then I have little need to respect those beyond my private world of self-aggrandizement. This hyper-subjectivism is an intellectual staple of many liberals – the idea that there are few, if any, objective truths. Yet it is also a convenient support for the unethical market manipulation of many so-called conservatives. Welcome to the 1920s.

Before We Reap the Whirlwind

People of faith should be concerned – seriously concerned – if history tells us anything. The late-nineteenth century was a time of both unparalleled optimism and wildly unequal distribution of resources. Before World War I many Christians actually believed that the twentieth century would see God’s kingdom arrive. Among various schools of philosophy, Idealism reigned. This kind of idealism was not simply wishful thinking. It was a formal intellectual perspective that emphasized the perceptions of thinking subjects. Sound familiar? Unfortunately, the cataclysm of 1914-1918 interrupted such ignorant (and arrogant) bliss. Use of poison gas on battlefields tends to dampen one’s convenient flights of fancy. Add a world-wide economic depression and people came face-to-face with reality – whether it matched their perceptual gimmickry or not. The nihilism of the 1920s and the disillusionment of the 1930s left the world open to dangerous totalitarianism – in either fascist or communist form. We should be very concerned right now.

A Way Beyond the Storm

In 1935, evangelical Christian (that’s right . . . evangelical) E. Stanley Jones wrote a provocative book. He gave it the title Christ’s Alternative to Communism. Jones, noted for his outreach to several cultures, big heart, and giant intellect, argued that the gospel offers a way beyond the dehumanizing extremes of predatory capitalism and suffocating socialism. He believed that the world was in desperate need of a “third way” – a way that respected freedom while teaching that freedom is meaningless if it does not care for all. That’s not a bad place for us to start today. We might even call it a form of “realism” – the kind of realism that seeks to respect the reality of that and those outside of us. This is not socialism. It is love. There is a lot of talk among Christian organizations about the need for creativity, innovation, and change. I agree, but if all of this adds up to mimicking the excesses of corporate power, forget it. Creativity and innovation are vacuous, at best – and pernicious, at worst if they do not care for people. Let’s stop making excuses for policies designed to shift resources away from the common good and toward the elite few. And let’s not be afraid to say that our faith perspective calls us to such convictions.

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